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Fascinating stuff

08 Apr

I am currently reading a thriller by a Spanish journalist: Juan Gomez-Jurado, God’s Spy (Orion 2007):

God’s Spy has a lot of attention-grabbing ingredients. There’s a cast of characters that includes a brutal serial killer (of cardinals !), a (female) Italian police inspector who was trained at the FBI headquarters in Quantico, and a priest who was an American intelligence officer — not to mention cameos by popes John Paul II and Benedict. Set in the Vatican, it offers numerous conspiracies, from the Catholic Church sex-scandals to sinister and secretive Vatican organisations to the crimes John Negroponte was willing to overlook in Honduras. With all this set in the Vatican as the cardinals gather to elect a new pope in April of 2005 … well, you can understand how the pitch would appeal to editors…

In outline it doesn’t sound half bad. Someone is offing cardinals — in a phenomenally gruesome manner. More or less in charge of the case, Paola Dicanti, from the Department for the Analysis of Violent Crime, has to contend with both attention and contempt from her male colleagues. The American priest-cum-spy, Anthony Fowler, has a tortured history of his own. The Vatican wants to keep everything hushed-up, so information about the dead cardinals is kept from the public. A journalist stumbles on the truth — putting herself in grave danger. And then there’s the Santa Alianza:

“It’s the Vatican’s Secret Service. Or so they say. A network of spies and secret agents who don’t hesitate to kill. Old wives’ tales, used to scare rookie cops who just joined the force. Nobody takes it seriously.”

In this book, it’s hard to take anyone or thing seriously, but even the most outlandish idea isn’t too ridiculous for Gómez-Jurado.

A somewhat more favourable review by Kerryn Goldsworthy appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. The book does have its good moments, and one assertion about Nicaragua and the Contras back in Reagan’s time struck me rather forcibly:

The soldiers were recruited from among the poorest Nicaraguans. An old ally of the United States government sold them weapons, a man few people expected would turn out as he did: Osama bin Laden. (p.131)

Is this true? There is a related urban myth analysed on Snopes.com. But in this murky world all sorts of things are possible. Bin Laden’s connections with the CIA-backed opposition to the Russians in Afghanistan and against the pro-Soviet regime there are well documented. One fascinating look at all that, and the machinations of the Saudis, whom Osama now opposes of course, may be found in a recent book generously extracted from on PBS: The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in The American Century by Steve Coll (Penguin April 2008).

Secrecy and complexity governed the relationship between King Fahd and Ronald Reagan. That winter of 1985, apart from Great Britain, there was perhaps no government with which the Reagan administration shared more sensitive secrets than it did with Saudi Arabia. Unbeknownst to the American public, for example, Reagan had authorized an attempt to free American hostages held in Lebanon by selling weapons to the kidnappers’ sponsors in Iran; Adnan Khashoggi, who worked closely with the Saudi royal family, was centrally involved in those secret transactions. Also, the previous June, after a request by Reagan’s national security advisor Robert McFarlane, King Fahd had secretly agreed to funnel $1 million per month into a Cayman Islands bank account in support of Nicaragua’s anti-communist rebels, known as the Contras; this contribution allowed President Reagan to evade congressional restrictions on such aid. Saudi Arabia had no particular interest in the Nicaraguan cause, according to the kingdom’s longtime ambassador in Washington, Bandar Bin Sultan (“I didn’t give a damn about the Contras-I didn’t even know where Nicaragua was,” he said later). However, according to Bandar, McFarlane claimed the aid would help ensure Reagan’s reelection in November by preventing trouble in Central America. The Saudis contributed the money and, as it happened, Reagan won in a landslide…

There was one portfolio of secrets binding King Fahd and President Reagan that winter that unquestionably involved Salem Bin Laden, however. These concerned the covert aid provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia to anti-communist rebels fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The United States and Saudi Arabia each had already channeled several hundred million dollars in cash and weapons to the Afghan rebels since the Soviet invasion in 1979. It seems probable that when Salem reached Washington that winter, he would have passed to King Fahd, if not directly to the White House, the video evidence he had just gathered documenting Osama’s humanitarian work on the Afghan frontier. As he welcomed Fahd to the White House, Reagan took pains to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s particular efforts to support Afghan refugees on the Pakistani frontier: “Their many humanitarian contributions touch us deeply,” Reagan said. “Saudi aid to refugees uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed here, Your Majesty.”

That February of 1985, in Pakistan, the leading Saudi provider of such assistance was Salem’s half-brother, Osama. Reagan’s language suggested that he had been given at least a general briefing about Osama’s work.

“We all worship the same God,” Reagan said. “The people of Afghanistan, with their blood, courage and faith, are an inspiration to the cause of freedom everywhere.”…

After September 11, it became commonplace to trace the sources of Osama’s radicalism to the Islamic political revival that swept the Middle East after 1979, and also to his experiences as a jihad fighter and organizer during the anti-Soviet Afghan war. These were crucial influences on him, but to focus on them exclusively is to risk passing over the complexity of Osama’s relationship with his family and his country, the sources of attraction and repulsion these ties created in his life, and their influence on his character and ideas. These latter subjects are ones that the Bin Ladens and the Saudi royal family have tried to keep as private as possible.

The extraordinary story of the Bin Laden family’s rise during the twentieth century is compelling even where it does not touch upon Osama at all. For many of the Bin Ladens of Osama’s generation, family ties proved to be changeable and, above all, complicated. Theirs is a story of modernization and power in Saudi Arabia, a young and insecure nation where the family is by far the most important unit of politics…

The Bin Laden family saga also provides a particularly consequential thread of the troubled, compulsive, greed-inflected, secret-burdened, and, ultimately — to both sides — unconvincing alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia during the oil age. Until Osama announced himself as an international terrorist, his family was much more heavily invested in the United States than has generally been understood — his brothers and sisters owned American shopping centers, apartment complexes, condominiums, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much else. They attended American universities, maintained friendships and business partnerships with Americans, and sought American passports for their children. They financed Hollywood movies, traded Thoroughbred horses with country singer Kenny Rogers, and negotiated real estate deals with Donald Trump. They regarded George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family. In both a literal and a cultural sense, the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama declared war, and yet, as was true of the relationship between the Saudi and American governments, their involvement in the United States also proved to be narrow and brittle. This made both Osama’s anti-American ideology and his family’s response to it all the more complex.

The Bin Laden family’s global character owes much to the worldwide shape of the oil market and the wealth it created after 1973, but it is rooted, too, in an age before combustion engines. Osama’s generation of Bin Ladens was the first to be born on Saudi soil. Their father, Mohamed, the gifted architect of the family’s original fortune, migrated from a mud-rock fortress town in a narrow canyon in the remote Hadhramawt region of Yemen. He belonged to a self-confident people who were themselves pioneers of globalization, albeit in a slower-paced era of sailing ships and colonial power. Mohamed Bin Laden bequeathed to his children not just wealth, but a transforming vision of ambition and religious faith in a borderless world.

Now that does sound like a fascinating book.

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Posted by on April 8, 2008 in America, book reviews, current affairs, Fiction, globalisation/corporations, Middle East, politics, reading, terrorism, Thriller

 

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